Art and Agency

August 19, 2020
Index Magazine

Art and Agency

This print shows two raised hands, clasped together, in fire engine red, overlaid with a blue inscription in all caps, “Come Together in Peace.” The background is beige.
2007.5 Strike Poster Workshop, American, Come Together in Peace, 1969. Screenprint. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Vivian and Lionel Spiro, 2007.5.

In moments of crisis, art can communicate hope and a call to action. We looked at works from the collections that remind us to take a stance, build community, and make a difference.

Discussions of whether and how art can be an agent of political change have taken place over millennia and continue unabated today. Even the most protean creativity cannot exist outside of social, political, and economic frameworks. But not all art expressly acknowledges or engages with politics. What does it mean for art to be political? We aim to spark conversation about the responsibility not only of artists but of museums, too, which shape communities through access and interpretation. In his Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin writes that:

social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back.

The following contributions are offered with Baldwin’s observation in mind. 

Posters for Peace 

The image above is one of several prints made by Harvard students during the protests of April 1969. Chief among the protesters’ grievances was the university’s involvement in the Vietnam War, especially the creation of a Reserve Officers Training Corps on campus. A proliferation of posters expressing their pleas for change appeared across campus, and the greatest number came from a print shop set up in the basement of Memorial Hall by a group of students calling themselves Designers for Peace. An archive of 167 posters made during this period is housed in the Harvard University Archives, accessible for study and research. 

Elizabeth M. Rudy, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints, Division of European and American Art

When Words Fail

Over 2,000 years ago, political discourse in Athens centered on tensions triggered by Philip II, king of Macedon, whose imperial ambitions threatened the independence and democratic values that were a hallmark of the Attic city. The leader of the opposition movement was renowned statesman Demosthenes (384–322 BCE). Self-trained in the art of oratory, Demosthenes became a skilled speechwriter; by the age of 30 he began to argue forcefully against the aggressions of Philip II and later his son, Alexander the Great.

Based on the life-sized bronze statue of the famed orator by the sculptor Polyeuktos, this scaled version was made between 100 BCE and 100 CE. The statue was erected in the Athenian marketplace in 280/279 BCE, 42 years after Demosthenes died by suicide. With furrowed brow and receding hairline, this brooding figure stands in quiet contemplation. His sagging half-bared torso belies the sharpness of his intellect and the “muscle” of his rhetoric. One can sense the weight on his shoulders as he reflects on his inability to save his beloved Athens.

The inscription on the base of the full-scale statue read: “If you had power equal to your resolution, Demosthenes, the Macedonian Ares would never have acquired dominion over the Greeks.”

Amy Brauer, Curator of the Collection, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

A Portrait’s Politics

Returning to Paris from his beach vacation with Dora Maar in the summer of 1937, Pablo Picasso began a series of paintings depicting expressive female faces, which he called La femme qui pleure (Weeping Woman). Harvard’s work is dated October 28, 1937 and is the last of this group. Misidentified initially as a watercolor, the painting is made with two layers: one of diluted oil paint brushed on paper and another of black ink applied with a pen. The ink emphasizes the head’s angular profile and identifies its features, while the contrasting yellow and bluish-purple paint create coherence and volume. Raised hands, a crumpled handkerchief, a gaping mouth, and tearful eyes raised toward the heavens express immeasurable pain, which seems to threaten the very existence of the figure presented. It is hard for viewers to bear the emotional impact of this painting.

The seams between the personal and the political are almost imperceptible here. Many viewers have associated this series with Guernica, Picasso’s monument to the victims of the Basque town bombed in air raids by the German Legion Condor on April 26, 1937. The artist completed that mural-sized painting in June 1937. First exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris, it toured Europe and the United States (including the Fogg Art Museum in 1941) and now resides at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Dora Maar—photographer, painter, political activist, and Picasso’s muse and companion—is often credited with raising Picasso’s political awareness at the time of the Spanish Civil War. It is her face that Picasso disassembled and freely recomposed for Weeping Woman. And Maar later copied works from the series, even creating her own variations.

Former associate director of the Fogg Paul J. Sachs, in his Modern Prints & Drawings (1954), captioned this work “Study, After Guernica” and pointed out that Picasso “suggests with emphasis, through omission and through distortion, the anguish and horror suffered by the civilian victims of the bombing attack on the town of Guernica.” Was Picasso really this specific? His daring formal invention might to some viewers obscure rather than express universal emotion. And how does the lack of obvious references to political or personal circumstances fit with Picasso’s precise dating of the work? While this drawing might not look like a political statement, let alone propaganda, it almost certainly did have an impact. It entered Harvard’s collection in 1940, before U.S. involvement in World War II. We will never know how many Harvard men went to war in Europe with Picasso’s Weeping Woman impressed on their minds.

Joachim Homann, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings, Division of European and American Art

Art at Play 

During the 1930s, multimedia artist Ben Shahn photographed the people and landscapes of the American South and Midwest for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency that supported agricultural workers. Hundreds of these photographs are now housed at the Harvard Art Museums as part of the Ben Shahn Archive. While Shahn captured the deprivations and difficulties of the Great Depression, the photographs that stand out to me in his archive are those of people working together, being creative, and even dancing. These photographs are a reminder of the importance of being generous in action and in spirit during uncertain times.

Katherine Mintie, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art


Artist Mail 

In 1967, West German political journalist and art critic Helmut Rywelski opened a short-lived but influential publishing house and gallery, art intermedia, where he hosted exhibitions, actions, and happenings with an emphasis on socially critical and politically engaged art. To further realize his dual mission of raising consciousness and democratizing art, Rywelski editioned works and made them available at accessible prices. Embracing anti-establishment attitudes of “mail art”—often irreverent art objects disseminated through the postal service—Rywelski commissioned eight artists to contribute to Künstlerpost, or Artist Mail. 

For this project, H. P. Alvermann, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Ansgar Nierhoff, Dieter Roth, Daniel Spoerri, and Wolf Vostell created “objects, sculptures, concepts, [and] ideas” to be reproduced in an edition of 100. The artists’ idiosyncratic contributions ranged from conceptual and participatory art to satirical self-portraiture. Consider, for example, Brecht’s letter outlining his Land Mass Translocation Project—envisioning the flooding of southern England as it sinks into the sea. Or Filliou’s oversized playing card with a joker on one side and an ace of spades on the other, paired with the inscription “to who wants to know what I am and what others take me for/From Robert Filliou (as I am and as people take me for).” And how about an instruction etched in Plexiglas to call the automatic answering machine of “Vostell Ideas” between 9pm and 12am and receive daily directives on how to create DIY happenings? Taken together, this collaboration underscores a shared artistic ethos: the potential for art to enact and promote solidarity through the human capacity for creativity and creation. 

Lauren Hanson, Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art


Joachim Homann, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings in the Division of European and American Art, and Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, compiled and edited the entries.